At a banquet for an assortment of international food and wine figures in Madrid a few years back, an esteemed American food writer, looking with justified distaste at the sorry dinner rolls on our table, announced, "There's no good bread in Spain." Several of us almost killed him. What we were served that night was not good bread, but there's excellent bread in many parts of the country, as good as anything in Italy or France.
Some of the best is found at traditional bakeries, especially those in small towns, in the region of Catalonia. The classic Catalan loaf is a round one, typically half a kilogram or one kilogram in weight, called pa de pagès, literally bread of the farmer. Baked in a brick oven, either wood- or gas-fired, it is a crusty bread with a soft white interior. It is used in all the usual ways, but finds its apotheosis in the form of pa amb tomàquet, bread with tomato. For this elemental Catalan specialty, it is thickly sliced, grilled, rubbed with the juicy side of a halved tomato, drizzled with olive oil, lightly salted, and then eaten with everything from anchovies or ham to cheese or chocolate.
With their strong sense of cultural identity, the people of Catalonia have long believed that their pa de pagès was something special, and now the European Community has agreed. On Feb. 20, it awarded "Pa de Pagès Català" a PGI, or Protected Geographical Indication. This is given to food and drink products around the EU that are produced within a designated area and have specific qualities attributable to its place of origin and/or the people who produce it. The bread of Catalan farmers — and in reality of all Catalonia — clearly qualifies.
You won't be able to find real pa de pagès in America, but make a note to buy a loaf the next time you're in Barcelona or the vicinity. Even if you just have to tear off a hunk to nibble while you're walking down the Ramblas, it'll give you a real taste of the region.